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At Old Chicago in Petaluma, dishes are deep

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With new restaurants popping up all the time, we sometimes forget about the Petaluma staples that have stood the test of time. Old Chicago Pizza is one such restaurant, and today still has the same allure as it did forty years ago when it first opened, for great pizza, great service, and a great location, looking down on the hustle and bustle of downtown Petaluma.

Growing up in Petaluma, “as American as baseball and apple pie,” was more appropriately covered by “bowling and Old Chicago.” When choosing how we wanted to celebrate our birthdays, we often chose Old Chicago followed by bowling, and from the large teenage party going on in the back room during our visit, Old Chicago seems to still be a popular birthday choice.

Even since childhood, when asked which pizza is my favorite, my answer has always been “Old Chicago.” Admittedly, I enjoy some of the flatter pizzas around town, but I am a deep-dish guy at heart, and nobody quenches that hunger quite like Old Chicago. Even through a decade in San Francisco and another in the East Bay, Old Chicago always topped my list for pizza. I was tempted with the likes of Zachary’s but always stuck by Old Chicago, and after our recent lunch, steadfastly still do. I even spent a long weekend in the “Windy City” attempting to search out the best deep dish, but none were as satisfying as our Petaluma stalwart.

Interestingly, Chicago is not called the “Windy City” because it is particularly windy, but instead was part of a late 1800’s campaign advertising the cool summer breezes blowing in off Lake Michigan. In fact, when it comes to average wind, San Francisco actually edges Chicago out, with average winds of 10.5 mph, versus Chicago’s 10.3 mph.

Additionally, and contrary to what some may say, Chicagoan’s will tell you that the “real” Chicago style pizza is not the deep-dished deliciousness turned out by places like Old Chicago. Instead, it is a thin, crispy, and greasy crusted pie, which first appeared on bar tops along the workers’ route home from the factories to entice them to stay and have another beer or two. Also peculiar to the uninitiated, this style of pizza is usually cut into squares, referred to as “tavern cut,” “Chicago cut,” or “party cut.” Chicago locals buy more of the thin than deep dish version, which they consider a touristy thing, in large part because the famous deep dish pie shops in Chicago tend to be in touristy areas.

Regardless of what Chicagoans call “real” Chicago pizza, with both the thin crust and the deep dish having been invented around the same time, not to mention both being born several generations ago, either can be considered “Chicago style”, and personally, I prefer the deep version. But I digress. Clearly, “Chicago” Bill Berliner preferred deep dish pizza and Petaluma has been rejoicing ever since.

Current co-owner Audrey Haglund spent her formative years in Petaluma, and graduated from Petaluma High. One of her first jobs was at the Plaza Theater, now the Mystic Theater.

“The Plaza Theatre and Old Chicago traded movie tickets for pizza,” says Audrey. “I loved the pizza and got to know many of the employees. In 1987 applied to Old Chicago, and was hired by general manager Michael Hansen. “Working both jobs in the heart of downtown Petaluma where everything was happening was a dream.”

Audrey worked her way up from busser to cook, bartender, and server, before joining Michael as a manager. When Bill passed away in 2009, Audrey and Michael took over ownership, and when Michael passed away in 2016, his widow Joanne stepped in as partner.

A Sonoma County native herself, Joanne’s background and formal training was in the arts, working in bookstores, antique shops, and auction houses. “Old Chicago is a totally different world,” says Joanne. “This can be very fast paced, and on a busy night, everyone relies on their co-workers to work with the same speed and accuracy as they do. It is an amazing thing to behold and be part of.”

Because deep dish pizzas take longer to cook, we ordered ahead, which Old Chicago makes easy with their straight forward online menu. However, maybe that is one of the reasons patrons still flock to Old Chicago as a dining experience instead of just a place to grab a quick slice. With cook times of up to 30 minutes per pie, guests have a chance to actually sit and relax while waiting for their food.

The ambiance helps too. Old Chicago Pizza sits on the second floor of the Lanmart Building, which was built in 1876 to celebrate our country’s 100th birthday. If only the patina brick walls and well-worn floors of this historic building could talk, I am sure they would have some incredible stories to tell. As kids, we were told in whispers that the building used to be a brothel, which was connected by a door to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which used sit next door, but is now an empty lot.

With a group of six, an article to write, and an appetite to boot, we ordered five pizzas, an order each of pesto and garlic bread, and a blue cheese wedge salad, just to pretend we were cultured. Even sticking with mediums, I knew we were going to be looking at leftovers, which was fine by everyone at the table. I am sure we were not the only ones enjoying Old Chicago leftovers well into the following week. In fact, with prices ranging from $12 for a small cheese to $31 for a large 7-topping behemoth, the price per meal ratio makes Old Chicago one of the best deals in town.

My favorite pizza as a kid was an Old Chicago with so much meat that it took on a sweetness reminiscent of a pastry. Having forgotten that I am no longer a gluttonous child, when dining out was a special occasion, I could not resist piling the toppings onto our first pizza, just like I did as a kid. The sausage, salami, chicken, olives, and artichoke hearts on one-half turned out a bit busy, although still delicious.

Although blasphemous to even think, a single meat topping pretty much does the trick at Old Chicago, as proven by our other pizzas. Our second pizza was a bit more civilized than the first, with pesto, chicken, artichoke hearts, and bell peppers. While ranting and raving about this one, we learned it was quite close to Audrey’s favorite, which is pesto, chicken, artichoke hearts, and garlic and was the first pizza we ordered our next time around. Replacing the bell peppers with garlic gave the pizza the perfect balance along with the other flavors.

Our third pizza was half salami, garlic and olives, and half Canadian bacon and pineapple, both of which were excellent in their own rights. Although not my first choice, I am not a purist, so pineapple does not offend my sensibilities, and in fact satisfies the sweet and savory juxtaposition that many of us crave in things like sweet and sour chicken or salted caramel.

We also ordered a small double-crust pizza. Limited to two toppings, we opted for Joanne’s favorite, which is just a straight up pepperoni, and it did not disappoint.

Because gluten-free anything gives me pause, we asked our vegetarian to order her pizza with this specialty crust. If things went south, at least us meat eaters would be little affected. Surprisingly, it was quite good, even though it comes as a thin-crust pizza.

When asked about their favorite thing about Old Chicago Pizza, both co-owners answered that it is the people, both customers and employees.

“Having been in business for 40 years, we have seen families grow up with Old Chicago Pizza,” says Audrey. “I am always grateful to hear people say they started coming here as a kid and now bring their families to enjoy Old Chicago. Plus, many of our employees have been with us a long time, so it is like working with family.”

Our server Jenny was a great example of this and seemed to genuinely love what she was doing, making us too feel like family immediately upon us taking our table. This added warmth to a food experience that is often considered too pedestrian to be taken as a serious restaurant cuisine. When asked what surprises her most about working at and owning Old Chicago, Audrey says, “through all these years, it never seemed like a job.”

Old Chicago is currently planning an east-side delivery location, and plans to coordinate that opening with a 40th Anniversary celebration, so stay tuned.

Old Chicago will leave a lasting impression, both for its family-run atmosphere, as well as a pizza for every palette. Old Chicago’s tried and true flavors continue to appeal across the generations, as we saw tables filled with families, older folks, and even one that appeared to be high schoolers’ on a double date.